At the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, there were 58,632 priests in the United States, serving a Catholic population of 48.5 million. In 2014, there were 38,275 priests, serving a total of 79.7 million Catholics. The number of women religious in our country has seen an even more dramatic decrease, plunging from 179,954 to 49,883 during the same time frame (CARA Church Statistics). We have labeled this reduction in the number of priests and religious sisters as the “vocation crisis.” We are regularly instructed to “pray the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers” (Mt 9:38). But what if the issue is really our neglect of the seedbed vocations, namely marriage? What if we have a priestly vocation crisis because we have a marriage vocation crisis? The crisis is not just that we have fewer people getting married within the Church (the number of marriages within the Church went from 352,458 to 154,450) , but that we have treated marriage as a second-class vocation for far too long.
This second-class designation is not without a seeming biblical precedent. In his first letter St. Paul tells the Corinthians that “he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Cor 7:38). Earlier in the letter (7:9) he tells them that “if they cannot exercise self-control, then they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” The popular interpretation of this is that the decision between whether one should remain celibate depends upon whether one can control himself or not. If he cannot, then it is better to be married than not. Read through the lens of our fallen human nature and thanks to a practical denial of marriage as a Sacrament, marriage became viewed as an outlet for indulging otherwise out of control passions.
This view has predominated for centuries in the Church. The Church even labeled it as the secondary end of marriage calling it the remedium concupisentiae, which was translated as the remedy of concupiscence (or lust). It is time that we re-examine this viewpoint to see if it really fits with what St. Paul was saying especially in light of Vatican II’s universal call to holiness. With this as our understanding, marriage is viewed as being only for those who lack self-control. It is only a short leap from this to the conclusion that self-control is not necessary in marriage because it offers us a place where we can legitimately engage our lust. In other words, the call to holiness for married people comes despite their vocation and not because of it.
As an aside, I have to say that the need to work out a theology of marriage should have been a major focus of the Synod of the Family the past two years. Instead they debated secondary issues like gay marriage and Communion for the remarried, wasting the Church’s time and money. How many people actually want Communion that are remarried? Why not focus on properly setting the ideal of marriage and showing how that can be a source of sanctification rather than look for loopholes to let a distorted view seem legitimate?
Once Vatican II and the subsequent popes began looking at marriage through a personalist perspective, framing marriage in terms of its unitive and procreative aspects, the term remedium concupisentiae was dropped from the Church’s vocabulary. But the question is still open and marriage will still be viewed as a lesser vocation until it is addressed. Rather than dropping the term, we should return to its roots because it contains an important truth. St. Thomas and the Church fathers before him translated remedium concupisentiae as the remedy against concupiscence. This change in a preposition makes all the difference.
St. Thomas says marriage is a remedy against concupiscence because it offers graces to overcome the self-seeking aspects of (married) love. Love means making a gift of yourself and marriage offers us a unique way in which our love can be purified because it requires a total gift of oneself. Through the grace of the sacrament of Marriage, the tendency to live a life of selfish taking is overtaken by a life of generous love. In other words, one of the primary effects of marriage is that it purifies the love of the spouses. It is not just a purification of the love for each other that occurs, but a purification of the love for God as well.
Each and every Sacrament is a real encounter with Christ and the Sacrament of Marriage is no different. Although it is a “great mystery,” (Eph. 5:32) the spouses by being ministers of the Sacrament of Marriage bestow Christ on one another. This occurs not just on the day of their wedding, but every day. This is why St. Paul commands spouses to be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). This isn’t meant to be interpreted poetically, but sacramentally. The spouses really act in persona Christi to one another. How often in our married life it is necessary to call this truth to mind!
Returning to the text in 1 Corinthians we can begin to see why St. Paul wishes everyone to be as he is without in any way denigrating marriage. In the case of celibacy emotional love is purified through a “special gift from God” (1Cor 7:7) while in the case of the spouses, their love is purified through marriage lived out in a “truly human way” (Gaudium et Spes, 49), bolstered by the Sacrament of Marriage. Both celibates and married however have the same ideal, namely for their love to be purified of concupiscence. In the case of the married they actually grow in holiness through this struggle, while the celibate simply live out the gift.
This is why the Church has always insisted that the initial discernment should always be between celibacy and marriage. If one discerns he has been given the gift of celibacy then he would discern how that call is to be lived out (laity or clergy). Proper discernment would never consist (at least initially) in marriage vs priestly/religious life.
Looked at from the perspective of potential for holiness, Marriage is actually the higher calling. The celibate gains no merit for the gift of celibacy per se (recognizing there is merit in responding to this gift). His love is purified by a singular grace. The married person however must actively cooperate with the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage daily. St. Paul himself says this when he mentions that married life is the harder path because of the concerns of the spouses and the world (1 Cor 7:32-35). If the path to holiness is harder, then there is greater merit when it is achieved.
As somewhat empirical proof of this second class status, the number of married persons among declared saints is extraordinarily few as compared to the number celibates. This sends the message that marriage is not so much a calling but a human concession. Back in October, the Church canonized Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin who became the first married couple with children to be canonized in the same ceremony, but this should be seen merely as a start. Surely there are many other married people in heaven and the Church would do a great service to married couples by opening up causes of other married saints. Sts Louis and Zelie Martin, pray for us!